Round About Calcutta


This is not a guide book. It contains impressions and a little history; and gives glimpses of various phases of life in Calcutta.

— R. J. Minney

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Chapter One

The Birth of Calcutta

Calcutta proper centres round Dalhousie Square. It was “Calcutta” before Job Charnock ever came here; and when he came, in 1698, he went past it, and turned into a little creek, that ran where now is Hastings Street, the haunt of the lawyers. The creek coursed its way through unkempt fields and was overhung by a luxuriance of tropical vegetation, while all around tall trees abounded. All that is left of the creek to-day is the name of Creek Row, through which it once flowed. The creek meandered down to Sealdah and there at the corner of what is now Bowbazaar, and was then merely an uncared-for maidan nursing some straggling bustis, stood a tree, bigger than all the others, affording a welcome shade. Here, thought Charnock, we shall make our home. Some cotton workers lived around, and near by was a cotton market. A factory for the Hon’ble the East India Company was accordingly erected at this site and Charnock and his fellows built themselves houses. This spot was later to be incorporated in a growing Calcutta. As yet it was merely the village of Suta (cotton) nuttee.

But here they did not stay long. Trouble with the Indian administrators forced them to abandon their homes and proceed to Madras where existence was more secure, because of numbers. A few months later, however, hearing of dissensions that distracted the Indian authorities in Bengal, Charnock and his fellows returned, landing this time in Calcutta, then merely a cluster of huts known as Dihi-Calcutta, scattered around tanks, one of which was later to be made the centre of a Park and is now preserved for us in the heart of Dalhousie Square.

Charnock and his companions noticed that their factory and home at Sutanuttee had been destroyed during their absence, and perhaps they thought it wiser to build nearer the river, instead of on the banks of the creek as before. Possibly, too, they thought Sutanuttee was too near the Salt Lake which, in those times, exuded a most insanitary odour.

In their barges they lived for some days until they built themselves some huts similar to those in which the Indian villagers lived around their tanks; and then these English settlers took themselves wives from among the people. Charnock married a Hindu widow whom he is said to have romantically rescued from a suttee pyre, and the daughter of this union was destined to be Lady Eyre, wife of one of the first Governors of Calcutta.

There were not many Europeans in Calcutta at that date, probably under fifty; but in twenty years a traveller computes their number at 1,500. If Eurasians (known as Portuguese) and Armenians and Indians are included there were as many as 12,000 people at that time.

As the city grew people began to go further afield, crossed the creek, cleared away the jungle and built themselves palatial houses on Chowringhee, then merely a pilgrim track through the jungles.

Though the numbers in the settlement grew steadily, it was a time of storm and stress, of frequent fighting and of danger, not only from the Indians of Bengal, but from the Mahrattas, who were plundering everywhere, and had got as far as what is now the Botanies, but was then occupied by a Moghul fort, which the Mahrattas captured. The British, who had already built themselves a fort on the site of what is now the General Post Office and had armed it with ten large guns from Madras, placed these guns along the river front to ward off attack from that direction and made themselves a ditch which has given its denizens to this day the name of Ditchers. Insecurity continued till after the Black Hole. But after Mir Jaffar was placed on the gadi of Bengal, with the enormous tribute that he paid to Calcutta—nominally as compensation for the sack by Suraj-ud-Dowlah, but really for assistance rendered by the British in securing him his position—Calcutta was able to build quite an excellent city for those times. Trade was brisk and what with legitimate business and with money-making by means which could not be described in those terms, the people of Calcutta amassed fortunes, talked in lakhs and pagodas, built themselves palaces and were known as Nabobs. Women folk came out from home to husbands, or to keep house for brothers and fathers till they found husbands. Women were not unmarried for long. Everybody wanted wives and there were not enough for all.

The city grew southwards as the north was already what in those days was known as Black Town. Houses abounded “south of Park Street”—then this entire district was known as Chowringhee—white, chunam-faced houses with verandahs around, of which there are but few left to-day.

The story of the birth of the city is writ upon the stones in the cemeteries: in St. John’s church, and when that was overcrowded, bodies being deposited again and again in the same grave, in the two cemeteries in Park Street, split by a street, but holding all that is left in crumbling bones and dust of those who have enabled us to live the life, varied and at times gay, that we live today.

Charnock’s tree was struck down; a decaying house stands on the site to-day: of the old fort, an arch or two and some lines upon the ground alone remain, and the Black Hole is an expanse of block cement deposited at the instruction of Lord Curzon. The Charnock column in Dalhousie Square too is new, a replica of the original erection, but replaced at the instigation of the same noble Lord responsible for the paving of the site of the Black Hole. Truly Calcutta owes a great debt to Lord Curzon.

The Cathedral Church in Murghihatta stands almost on the exact site upon which stood the Portuguese chapel that was built in 1690 upon land conferred upon the Portuguese by Charnock.

Chapter Two


Let us now view the city in its infancy—reconstruct it as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, after it had overcome nearly a century of battling with human foes and with nature.

In 1792-93, the centre of attraction in Calcutta was Dalhousie Square. This was the park and the promenade. Here the people took their constitutional, evening after evening, while the more wealthy drove round in palanquins—facetiously called “coach and four”—or chaises. Others still went up and down the river in budgerows, over exactly the same ground as their successors now do in carriages or motors; for the Hughli at that date flowed along what is now the Strand. There were no Eden Gardens, which came nearly half a century later when an Eden was Governor and had considerate sisters anxious to provide the populace with a new promenade—but on the site of the present garden stood an avenue of trees fronting the river, known as Respondentia Walk.

Dalhousie Square, which is known to the servant world even to-day as “Lail Digee”, is said to have earned its name from the Old Mission Church which was once a red brick construction. There were no houses in those days between the church and the tank. The same church is responsible for the crossing near it being known as Lail Bazaar, where now stands the red offices of the Police Headquarters and where in 1792 the Calcutta Chronicle had its offices alongside the old Harmonic Theatre. This Street was one of the most fashionable of streets in the settlement, being as it was a continuation of the “Avenue”—the road fronting Writers’ Buildings—the Chowringhee of the day. And yet at the cross roads where Lail Bazaar and Bentinck Street meet was the site of many a public execution; and it was here four years later, in 1797, just in front of the old Harmonic Theatre that Gale, a European soldier, was hanged for murder. Writers’ Buildings was, of course, in existence at that time. It was used as a lodging house for the writers of the company; while what is now the Scotch Kirk was the Old Court House which has given its name to the street as well as the corner. In 1792—the Old Court House had already been pulled down so that its site was waste land—an eye sore in a fashionable locality until the Scotch Kirk was erected, which was not until 1815—the year of Waterloo.

The Old Court House was at one time the equivalent of the Town Hall. Here were held concerts and dances—mostly subscription dances in which the high and low mingled without any restraint. But the decay of the Court House might be said to mark the rise of class distinctions in the settlement. Hitherto the population of the city had grown rapidly out of a very few and the people were not yet conscious of their numbers. So they clung together as white men always do in small isolated settlements and the Hindu wives of the older members of the company mixed freely with the wives and daughters of the newer civil servants, and all received and returned visits from Armenian ladies who at that time formed a considerable number in the settlement.

But already in 1792 signs were visible of people being desirous of moving about more in their own circles. Private parties and dances began to be given and when an enterprising worker sought to organise a masquerade Ball at the Harmonic at a guinea a ticket for all and sundry he had but poor support. The Harmonic was one of two theatres; the other, the Calcutta Theatre, occupied the site of Clive’s old house, situated at the northwest end of Lyons Range, which is now in the form of one of the most modem buildings in Calcutta: the Exchange and the headquarters of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce.

St. John’s Church had but recently been built and the old graveyard adjoining it, already over full, had been given up for the new one in Park Street. The hospital too which at that date stood beside the old graveyard in a most insanitary site was removed “into the country” across the maidan to the site of the present Presidency General Hospital.

For shopping there were not many facilities. Mrs. Fay, who has handed down to us some lively though inaccurate letters about life in this settlement, dealing with a period just a little earlier than the one which we are examining, had by 1792, in consequence of a separation from her husband, opened a modiste’s establishment in a house adjoining St. John’s Church, from where she carried on an unending squabble with the church wardens over a boundary wall which blocked out the light from her lower rooms.

Upjohn’s map—of which a copy may be seen in any library—gives a good indication of the life of the settlement at that day. The houses are of course thickest around the great tank, but they have begun to dot themselves along Chowringhee. The old Creek is filled up and is known as Hastings Street, from the house that Hastings kept for the Baroness Imhoff, not yet Mrs. Hastings, a red building now used as the office of Burn & Co.

Pathways thread their way across the maidan which has been cleared of the jungle—and tanks are indicated here and there. A new tank was just then (1794) made at the corner of Chowringhee and Esplanade where the tramway shelter now is in front of the Bristol. This tank existed till the dawn of the present century.

The docks lay along the eastern bank of the river and from these many a sturdy sea going vessel, including men-o’-war, were constructed. On the site of the present Small Cause Court stood the old Bankshall or Marine House (the former being the Dutch appellation) which was, before the sack of Calcutta, the residence of the Governor who had his official quarters within the walls of the old fort. Behind St. John’s Church stood the Mint, and at the north-west corner of Dalhousie Square, on the very spot where it now stands, was the original Holwell monument, erected by Zephaniah Holwell himself to the memory of those who perished in the Black Hole. Already in those days the jail stood where the old jail stands now and even Belvedere is shown by Upjohn Belvedere to which Sir Phillip Francis was carried wounded after his duel with Warren Hastings in what is now Duel Avenue.

The cost of living in 1792 was not very high so far as servants and houses were concerned. Belvedere was to let towards the close of the eighteenth century at a rental of Rs. 300 per month and despite the fabled wealth of the times no tenant could be found. Servants’ wages were regulated by a Committee in 1778, but the figures laid down were apparently not adhered to, for on March 6th, 1792 there appeared a letter from a correspondent in the Calcutta Chronicle desirous of knowing why “the rules of monthly wages which were fixed on in 1778 are not strictly adhered to as the general guide,” and also “how a house-keeper might obtain redress in cases of imposition, by being obliged to give more wages than is there mentioned?”

The following was the rate of monthly wages as fixed by the Committee for regulating servants’ wages, on the 22nd February, 1778:—

 Each Rs.
Postilion (where a Coachman is kept)6
Beastey (only employed half the year)5
Shaving barber
Grass cutter3
Surdar Bearer5
5 Bearers, at 315
Wood and Oil3
These to form a sett,
Mattrany for one house5
Ditto, if only to attend twice a day2
Washerman for a family10
Ditto, for a single person4

Most of the servants mentioned in the above list are of course not needed to-day such as the hookahbarbar, who carried his master’s hookah to dinner parties. We do not require either a whole time barber, or a shaving man in addition to the hair cutter, but facilities being few in 1792 and distances great it was no doubt thought wiser to pay the extra charges in return for comfort.

Of course prices are very different now both in servants wages and in house rents; and for what you could then hire the house which the Viceroy occupies when he comes to Calcutta, you can only get to-day a room or two in a side street of the city.

Chapter Three


The prices are not the only change. Out of a straggling jungle has grown a mighty city, as fine as you can find anywhere westward. Glistening white domes that play with the sunlight; bleak, sombre, lofty steeples, twin or solitary; aspiring mansions; five-hundred roomed hotels; theatres, cinemas, flung with a lavish hand northward and southward; tramways, taxis and buses; the most modern of modern motors to the number of ten thousand and a population above a million: which makes a car for every hundred people, without considering carriages and motor cycles. From being the seven-billionth village of India, Calcutta has blossomed, in what is a few years in the life of cities, into being the Second City of the British Empire—superior to Edinburgh, to Glasgow, to the largest city in any of the Dominions, and ranking with the age-old cities of antiquity, London and Paris.

That is the grading when you consider its importance and population. In size it is not considerable: you could lay it across a suburb or two of Brussels; which speaks very badly for Calcutta, crowding many thousands into the square mile, and thrusting them out to sleep on the streets, on the pavements, homeless. In Indian Calcutta many hundreds occupy the same building; over a thousand live in the larger ones. A dozen or two dwell in a room. They do not sleep there save in the winter. They sleep in the streets. But they are used to herding and even in the street a dozen will sleep in a small space, embracing each other, lying upon and across each other diagonally, as if they were shaken thus out of a box.

But Calcutta has had to battle with a demon for every square yard of land on which to stretch itself. The demon is the Swamp, alluvial deltaic mud, succoured by the many mouths of the Holy Ganges. To east, and to south it stands, baring its deadly fangs; hissing a cruel hate upon the settlers, knowing that the north and west are barred by the Native Town and the river. Cramped thus, the city has bulged a little upward, and the verandahed palaces of yesterday have blown themselves out into mansions. But one cannot help feeling that every mansion that stands today within the city is the mark of a victory won by the Swamp over Calcutta.

But the city never took the fight seriously, and the warfare has been merely of a guerrilla nature. Calcutta never girt its loins for the fray—not till recently. We have a Defence Force now, honoured with the name of Improvement Trust; and it has drawn up a plan of campaign and is assembling its big guns for a fight that will drive off the Swamp for a few years. Since the Swamp knows nothing of reading and writing no secret is made of the campaigning. It is talked of broadcast: and the plans are all published each week in the Calcutta Gazette.

The city has moreover a battle to fight within as it were its own soul. All the dirty spots are being torn out of its heart and flung aside: narrow streets, congested quarters, slums—all. Whole streets are being laid anew, the dust held fast beneath large slabs of tar, so that the city is cleaner and less dusty than it was before.

Adorned with a Museum and Zoological Gardens; blessed with a hill station all to itself to which citizens weary of the heat can escape for half a hundred rupees; a garden, the Botanies, a little way down the river; and a shooting preserve with live tigers in the Sunderbuns; riverside drives; the lordly Chowringhee equal to the finest thoroughfare anywhere; and the blessed Maidan, that enormous lung which is responsible for all the health and happiness that the people of Calcutta possess beyond that of the citizens of other cities in India.

It makes one wonder sometimes if we would have had our maidan to-day had it not been for Clive, who, by moving the Fort to its present location in the midst of a stretch of waste land, attached most of this terrain for military needs, taking it completely away from the control of the city. And though even to this day the city does not actually possess the Maidan, that is to say the Municipality which is responsible for every other street and park has no control over it, the Ditchers regard this expanse of green as their proudest possession; for they have appraised its value and are ready to snarl at every official nibble. And officialdom does nibble sometimes: it has eaten up the green where the earth now shows a white Victoria Memorial; it has been biting at the green again near the Town Hall where from the land will rise the new Council Chamber, the Parliament of Bengal.

We have, too, a racecourse, considered the finest in the world; where life is largely a dumb show between backer and bookmaker, and where comedy and tragedy are merely a play of the features. A High Court that preserves the memory of the shell-wrecked Cloth Hall of Ypres in what one presumes was its original beauty of colour of centuries ago; a University with a students quarter; places of diversion and excursion; objects of ugliness and of beauty of which we shall have glimpses in what is to follow.

Calcutta is in fact a city magnificent and beastly, though you would deny it the former of these qualities when you first set foot in it; for possibly, like many others, you too have come in by the Back Door.

Chapter Four

By the Back Door

Almost everybody comes into Calcutta today by the back door. The front door is seventy-two miles away and to get to it one has to go all round India. So most come in by the back door, frequently in the very early morning, when no one is looking, and they sneak into the city.

The back door is at Howrah and the track is across the creaking bridge that has bits of bark and saw dust strewn upon its joints; and they see Calcutta at its very worst—the congested Strand Road, already pestered with bullock carts, breathless Burra Bazaar, where there are so many flies and human beings that it is difficult to tell them separately, where puddles and dust prevail according to the season, where the reek of oil and sweets, rich with cream and ghee—but your taxi has shot down the Strand Road and the chances are that by now it has burst a tyre.

A bullock will strain at its yoke to kiss your helpless mud guard in sympathy. The whole atmosphere is sympathetic; a hundred passers-by have stopped in sympathy, as if they had never seen tyres go in this street at the rate of two a minute. There are more nails upon the surface of Strand Road than would stop a hundred packing cases gaping. The cases, in fact, seem to shed them on their way to town from the jetties in the jolt-jolt of the journey on a bullock cart.

Presently there is a glimpse of the Western in the midst of the Orient. You see a Square and you see the dome of St. Paul’s, which is the dome of the Post Office; and it depends on the hotel runner you saw first whether you have arrived at your lodging. The other hotel is on Chowringhee, Calcutta’s Piccadilly. And here you will see Calcutta’s proudest possession—the Maidan.

Many fail to see beauty in a sea of green upon which the clusters of trees seem like islands, and where to keep up the illusion the Monument is to all seeming a lighthouse. They say they would sooner have a real sea, and go to Bombay; lounge in the verandah of the Taj or delight in the admittedly glorious sunset across the Back Bay.

Calcutta has nothing equally picturesque to offer to the visitor. Residents know of beauties that a wanderer for a generation in Bombay could not discover. But the visitor rarely sees them. He sits in his hotel—and sees nothing. The coiffured men, the dainty prim maids, the more vivacious, lounging girls, are the human beauty that is in a state of flux in all cities. But of landscape the visitor sees naught. A tram-ridden street from the balcony of the Great Eastern; a flicker of successive taxis, each discharging its load of humanity, at the end of the long entrance hall that leads to the lounge of the Grand; a mass of tree tops from the balcony of Firpos—nothing more.

A restaurant should have been built at the Park Street corner of Chowringhee, by adding let us say an arcade to Hall and Anderson’s, on the roof of which tables could be laid out for tea. Then would the visitor see what would make his heart truly delighted: clear sweeps of maidan unencumbered by tree tops, foliage ranged as in a French boulevard, in a double row, all down Mayo. Road, across the green. He would see the almost rampant horse of Outram, with a circle of sward and red earth at its base; and he would see Chowringhee from its middle, the point at which it changes its expression—lively on the right, sedate to the left; town-like northward; suburban southward.

And he would see a play of colours on the open stretch of sky above the Fort, a play of colours caused by the setting sun such as is rarely beheld elsewhere—even in the Tropics.

No, Calcutta was not built for the visitor.

I have the good fortune of having a window in just such a part of Chowringhee, so I should be allowed the privilege of recommending the position.

My window offers a varying panorama at any hour of the long day. There is the hush of morning with the silent tread of pilgrims Kalighat-wards; trudging in single file, arms affixed to each other’s shoulders, and the saffron of drapery and the brown of bared shoulders flickering in the thin mist. The pad of a horse’s gallop comes from the horizon—where the mist has brought it nearer. A bullock cart creaks by empty.

But there will be a rush in a moment, when everything south of Park Street makes a spirited attempt to be the first to get to Clive Street. The angry screech of motor horns exchanging compliments with one another and crying down curses on the pedestrians; the grating crash of breaks that averts an accident; the clanging, groaning tram cars, that don’t move out of the way for anything.

Then follows the daily round. A hand cart full of soda bottles, bound for a club. Petrol tins on a motor lorry, or upon a swaying bullock cart. Carts tall with hay upon which sleepers are couched. Dhobies’ donkeys. Soldiers with canes which are used to strike the trunks of trees or the balustrade of the Maidan, (where there is a balustrade) or the mudguards of motor cars.

A prancing parawallah on a steed. Coolies with baskets. Cows, buffaloes and dogs. Gharies that look so open-mouthed when their hoods are up. The fez, Gandhi-cap and pugree. Trousers, dhoties and saries. Boots, tattered shoes and bare feet. Semi-nudity and complete nudity save for a loin cloth. Naked brats running right in front of passing motors in a manner that equals the breath-catching things we are shown on the cinema. Umbrellas. And more umbrellas. For it is undignified in India to be seen without an umbrella.

In the evening fashion goes by for an airing: married couples sitting apart and the betrothed sitting together—for it is thus even in Calcutta; and it would be so even on a desert island. Prim, proper Mary Anstruther, sitting bolt upright in her seventy years, her grey locks and phaeton. Dhurrumtollah’s outing—six in a second class ghari. A subscription drive from a Royd Street boarding house with more in a taxi than is allowed by police regulations.

Then night comes down like a gigantic blotting paper and soaks up all the brilliance, the colour, the detail of the landscape, leaving it like furniture with the paint scrubbed off, all a mass of irregular colourlessness save where the lights have broken out like an eruption.

The night has claimed too the mighty Victoria Memorial, unless the moonbeams are about to combat night for its possession; for moonbeams are the policemen of nature, rescuing this victim and that from the fell bogey of night. But moonbeams have their own queer trade and labour unions, the rules of which do not permit them to work save on certain numbers of evenings; and mayhap tonight it is not their duty.

Night then will embrace to herself all the magnificence of Calcutta’s architectural beauty to which her polygamous instinct has attracted her, and not till dawn shall we see them again, when a blush on the cheek of the dome of the Victoria Memorial, like the blush of a bride—for was it not wedded to night?—will show, as it half opens its eyes through the morning mists. The tank, seemingly at its feet, but actually at the foot of my window, is still asleep lazing in its blue-grey bed when all else is waking.

Sunlight as yet is golden, and shadow a brown gray. But it will deepen, the sunlight to the white heat of noonday that kills all colour, and the shadow to black, that like night, blots out everything.

Chapter Five


Foremost thoroughfare of an empire’s second city; carved from a jungle, and shaped by the feet of pilgrims.

Barefooted pilgrims, lanky legged; shy women wrapped up to their noses in saffron saris; long haired, untidy Yogis, with lotas and large brown beads like pepper seeds have jogged but yesterday beside palanquins and coaches and horses; quaintly clad chieftains; ladies of fashion of a departed era; Indian beaux and belles; Warren Hastings, Francis, Clive and the others.

Chowringhee! What an impressive name! What a lordly street and how imposing! Only in one part may the road be considered unworthy. From here narrow lanes sneak away as curs from rubbish that has tired them. Here low, ugly houses hardly raise their heads. Here vapours of filth and rotting cabbages scent the air and surge overhead joining the disturbed currents caused by the clang of bells, the yelp of pariah dogs and the general pandemonium of a busy corner. Clatter of horses hoofs; clang of trams that are starting; the troubled enquiries after the destinations of departing cars; the rush and movement; the Scitter-scatter of humanity; the long jawed horses nodding before their gharis; the complacent fat faced bulls pushing the people off the pavements. Here rickshaws lie aslant by the roadside. Shabby sailors emerge from hotels and raise feeble arms to drowsy gharis. And the bare, lighted pagoda at the tramway terminus is the only elegance.

But come away southward where the street is screened from the maidan by a wall of rustling verdure, where the trams creep murmuring beneath their wires and lights peep below the fronds of trees at about the tree trunk’s waist line.

The maidan spreads its face to the sky in the evening, unruffled by playing children, wandering cows or lounging idlers; indifferent to the traffic that Chowringhee sweeps southwards and northwards; heedless of the crescent moon; the low trailing clouds; the rim of lights that surrounds it from Government House to the Tank in its extreme south east corner.

Come southward down Chowringhee, where the shops are all doors and lighted windows, where the picture palace wears its tiara of lights against the darkening sky, where the street trails a double chain of lights at its sides like strings of diamonds; come and watch the lustre of still other lights, the emeralds and rubies, worn by the cars and gharis.

Come where the broad pavement of the museum calls the children to play, though their charges have taken them home ere the lights were lighted; where men move as shadows until the lights of the shop windows beyond turn them again into humanity. Come to the corner of Park Street where Chowringhee broadens, where you feel you are facing a wide terrain and the people are merely pigmies; where the sky is clear and an ashy blue above the tree tops; come where the statue of Outram stands out of its green sward base, outside the circle of which brown gravel swishes with vehicular traffic. Come where the idle tank bosoms the dreaming clouds and allows them to play with the street lights upon its surface.

Beyond Park Street Chowringhee seems to leave this earth of stir and bustle. Cars glide by in gentle whispers, gharis tinkle softly and the horse hoofs give a muffled sound. It is the dwelling place of respectability. It is the haunt of the aristocracy. See how proudly wide streets meet it, not sneaking away like curs. See how the houses hold up their heads. The very winds catch their breath as they gaze down from the tree tops and peep out from amidst the leaves and branches.

In the corner of Chowringhee Place a policeman stands in a fidget by the dozing motors. Come here at the hour of midnight and see the sleeping street awake into life as the last song dies on the stage of the Empire Theatre and the audience is ordered out by the National anthem. The street will roar; taxis growl, clatter, grate; horns hoot; buzzers buzz; men will call to taxis and taxis call to men; smiling women step into the vehicles, the doors of which the men hold open for them; lights will move forward and backward and vanish in patterns of red beyond the arm of the policeman.

Chowringhee is not a social promenade in the sense that the public thoroughfares of Europe are social promenades, thoroughfares like Piccadilly, or the boulevards of Paris, or the boulevards of Marseilles and Brussels, which lure the young and the old into their stream.

In Chowringhee no such love is displayed for walking. Clive Street has filled the pockets and the people loll in their cars and drive away from Chowringhee to the Red Road, or the River side, or round the drive by the General Hospital. Others take taxis and gharis, or drive in the trams, or sit in rickshaws; and the pavements are left to the bulls, the dogs and the children, the vendors of papers and those going in and out of the hotels and cafes. When will you ever find it as full as the streets of Rotterdam, which when the lights have been lighted flings out a stream of faces, moustached faces and powdered faces, packed together in a mass with not an inch or two between them, on the pavements and off the pavements, and all ever moving? The fair faces and the glistening gold hair catch the lustre of the lights from the streets and the shop windows and throw a glare almost to the very stars in the lofty dim sky.

But there is one thing wrong with Chowringhee. It is on the fringe of hell in the afternoon. Exposed to the westward, the street is baked by a merciless sun that empties every room and verandah overlooking Chowringhee, at the hour when one feels most like lounging or reclining. Chowringhee should have run east to west, or, if it will run north to south as it does now, it might have turned its gaze instead upon the eastern sun, which is tender and considerate. The maidan ought to have been where Taltolla is, and Taltolla by Fort William.

Yet perhaps the merit of Chowringhee as it is to-day is its command of the sunset, when the orange sun glows innocuously in the evening, oozing its myriad tints above the shipping of the Hughli and the chimneys of Howrah.

Chapter Six

The Maidan

The Maidan was provided for before the city was built. When Calcutta was young the Maidan was old and bearded—hairy with trees and forests. They trimmed it and shaped the city to encircle it like Bombay does the sea.

Beautiful and still. Majestic, lordly. There is a calm about the Maidan that makes one seek it for meditation, as one would the mountains. A bespectacled European seeks it each evening at dusk, and sits under a tree until dinner time; then returns again. One cannot see them, but there are pictures that float before the lens of his glasses and his bushy eyebrows as he inclines forward, his chin on his fist and his elbow on his crossed knee—pictures that are finer than those you can pay to see at the cinema beyond that wall of trees that bounds the Maidan. There is a slender air of Kipling about him—eyebrows, glasses, attitude and solitude: but this man has not given his pen a voice yet. Or perhaps he has. The unknown remains the unknown. But it makes me wish whenever I pass him that he will tell a fraction of all that the Maidan has told him in that whispering stillness of light-spangled evening.

The Maidan is as learned as the Moon in the craft of lovers; and more learned than the moon for there are kisses screened even from the moonlight, that the Maidan lends a hand in screening, with its tall bushy trees, in the paradise of a shadowed bench. The Maidan has seen lovers whilst the Moon has slept, seen them pass in gharis, or stroll along the bright red gravel tracks—all arms and rapture, or driving by in motors. The grass and the trees have heard the compliments and laughter of flirtation.

In the sunshine the grass has known the bubbling laughter of babies, set down by tired nurses and mothers and left to twine their infant fingers around the little green blades, and to smile at the flitting flies and grasshoppers. By an infant’s side a great big cow digs its teeth into the mud and drags the grass out by its very roots with a crunching sound. Goats are doing the same thing in a gentler way, with a speedier motion of the lips. Horses, donkeys. Loungers in lungies squat, beneath the shade and hum a ditty. Women seated on their haunches are resting ere they go on. A market has sprung up beneath every tree that lines the roadside. A barber here, bare-bodied and big moustached, plying the glistening razor upon the high cheek bones of his Hindu customer, or trimming the corners of the moustache of a Mahommedan. Sugar-cane laid out on a basket, cut up into thick discs like the men draughts are played with—all yellow and succulent. Seasoned balls of corn, sugared rice, oil-steeped bread and piles of curry: they are all displayed for the passers to see and the flies to sample. By the evening the whole bazaar will be no more, and the leaves that were plates will alone remain to tell that here a stall had been; and here. The large brass urn that shone beneath the tree that faces the Museum and did a brisk trade, for thousands arrive each day from the country to see the wonders of this House of Astonishment as they call it, is now no more, and the splash that stained the earth has also dried as the hours sped on after sundown. But tomorrow it will be there again, the brass urn, big and glistening, a yellow-red, with a lid of a deeper hue that hisses a grey smoke. The man by its side will tinkle a little bell, saying “Tea, tea. Tea, tea,” and the thirsty passers-by will fling down their pice and stoop to take the cup out of the hands holding it up to them.

There are about a dozen old women here each under an umbrella covered with white cloth; they prepare pan in a mechanical way as if it was their last purpose in the world to sell it. That barber there will convert that black mop which is stepping towards him into a shiny brown something that harbours the brains of a pilgrim who is drifting towards Kalighat. Tomorrow there will be a dozen more beneath a dozen trees having their heads shaved. And so the next day and the next, and all through summer time. They have come from Coolie Land—the docks and the mills, and from elsewhere, and while they are as proud of their shiny baldness as a Piccadilly Johnny is of the gloss upon his silk hat, there are others who face little four inch mirrors and wave their oil-smeared locks, with a ripple over the left ear and a curl depending upon the forehead. Fashion has no decree in India. It is an autocracy that has been crushed, overruled completely by democracy—nay by individual liberty. Each being has a power over fashion and does with it as he wills.

Wait, a mother is reunited with a son who left home months ago, driven out by a stern father. The rest of the Indian world goes on unnoticing. See, a coolie has flung himself under a tree and is writhing with the colic—the Indian world still goes by unheeding. A man flings a filthy word at another, a woman raises her voice in a yell, and the pioneers of a crowd commence to assemble. The population of the Maidan has increased tenfold. People swarm across from the streets, they give up their usual avocations. The stalls beneath the trees are deserted. A man has run across with his head but half shaved. And the cows, wiser than human beings, are ignoring the quarrel and appeasing their hunger upon the wares in deserted trays and baskets.

It is Saturday morning at the Tramway terminus. A Kabuli is seated on his haunches. His tall bamboo staff lies on the earth beside him. He has purchased a book of race tips into which he peers, a heavy moustache and beard split by a smile of white teeth. He tells himself winking that he has decided to attend the races. Only this morning he has extorted his interest with his bamboo from a dozen families in straightened circumstances. The money lies in a bulge by his kidney. A Bengali has stopped behind the shoulders of the Afghan. The book is open wide. Why should he buy a book when tips can be obtained thus, for nothing? The Bengali is the Scotsman of India, as well as the parrot, and he commits to memory all that he sees upon the page held there before him. But if he does not go away before the Afghan becomes aware of his presence, the bamboo will give a small performance that will interest a large assembly, possibly even a policeman.

There is a slight shake of the head as the squatting Kabuli turns the page over to the next race. The Babu has taken a pace back and has become absorbed in the clock above Whiteaway’s. What a splendid timepiece! He casts an eye down again, sideways.

The Afghan has not yet heeded him. “It is Spenlow or Moonshine or Darnley’s Selected,” he reasons. The Babu looks again, more boldly. No doubt he too will take a tram down to the race course that afternoon.

Here is a yogi, long-haired and mud stained. A quack vendor talks of the latest patent in medicines—straight from the stalls in Chitpore. Along this track and that the trams are adrift, running like mice. As the sun crawls westward with the afternoon, men coloured like jockeys come with ball or sticks between the goal posts.

The night falls. Soldiers fill the air with the songs of music halls, howled and whistled. And the figure of Kipling has settled again in the shadows, seeing his pictures pass before his deep eyebrows and the lens of his glasses.

Chapter Seven

City of Wonderful Lights

To fly low above Chowringhee, barely 800 feet above the street lights and glide gently southwards down the road on to and into Bhowanipore; and to do it by night—what a glorious experience!

I left the aerodrome Dum Dum in an aeroplane, in brilliant moonlight, flew over a countryside calm and reposeful in the soft light, with glaves peeping from beneath occasional bushes as if to bid us “Coo-ee!”

And we flew on and on Southward, lured by the lights of Calcutta till at last we were above the wonderful city. It was a City of Wonderful Lights—a field of brilliants across which slumbered the leaden monster of a river.

The sight was wonderfully fascinating. I do not think the cave of Ali Baba could have been a whit more wonderful. There were all the jewels of the universe—myriads of lights strewn lavishly on either side of the river. And all the time Calcutta slept—or seemed to be sleeping. There lay the busy, noisy, city—calm and quiet; and here in the upper air were we bearing noise with us wherever we went. If Calcutta was at all delighted to see the Handley-Page above the city at night time, Calcutta could not have been as delighted as were the mere handful in the aeroplane.

We circled round and round above the city. It did not matter where we went so long as we were above these wonderful lights. They formed the most crazy patterns below us and ran in snaky lines wherever the bigger roads meandered. And one little string spread itself like a diamond chain just where Howrah bridge should be. We circled round and round and then we left the city. We went to other lights—to Barrackpore and elsewhere; but ever it was the lights of Calcutta that beckoned. They beckoned and called to us ever so loudly. We could hear them above the voice of the awful monster that was bearing us away like some evil goblin from the fairy dream that had just been shown us.

We bumped and bumped and—the dream was over! We crawled out of the Handley Page on to the new aerodrome at Dum Dum and brought the memory of that dream seven weary miles back to Calcutta to set it down here on paper. It is a dream such as I shall ever wish to dream again.

Just those lights—and the leaden serpent of a river upon which the reflections flicker—and you will never, never want to wake up from it.

Chapter Eight


It is the street with the irregular sky line.

Tall houses, short houses; roofs shooting the sun; and roofs stretched out in bloated indolence. Railed roofs and railless.

It would take a generation to straighten the sky line; and a generation would be houseless. Not even a sergeant major’s waxed moustaches and large teeth could do it quicker, practised though they are in ranging lines of humanity.

It is the secondary trade route of the city. Shop signs tiptoe to the sky. Windows make an attempt at advertising—bland and devoid of beauty. And beggars sit about to glean the droppings of the trades-folk.

Trees stand close against shop fronts. Boarding houses squeeze in between the trees and the shop signs. Gharies, bullock carts, taxis, motors, lorries, all clamouring for passage. Trams grazing the edge of the pavements. Pedestrians bobbing and twisting between the horns of bullocks and the nodding heads of horses. Cyclists who are constrained to dismount and wait every half dozen paces.

Umbrella-ed Bengalis, Indians clad in English clothes with open shirt front, others in khalassi blue. One in a sola topee is very fat, short-necked and bloated. A pressure with the thumb would burst him.

The gentry are in rickshaws, sitting bolt upright, expressionless. Others barefooted and in dhotis, reclining leisurely. An Indian Christian housewife in the ragged garments of yesteryear is at her ease in another rickshaw that has shot out of Kintal land, at the turning by Chandni.

Gharis wait outside shops, the horses hunched up in their shafts and harness, limp-legged, asleep. The drivers are asleep on the box and syces slumber behind.

Water and rubbish on the pavements. The air is heavy with a fetid smell of hookah and food; paint, oil and cycles. In the shadow of the gold-tipped minarets women swathed in sheets clatter their slippered feet along the road.

Children’s garments flutter in the wind from the line that dangles outside the open shop front. Shopkeepers glare expectantly but have too much self respect to solicit custom.

A stout undressed Bengali sits on the mattressed floor, laid with white clean linen, fanning himself lazily. By his side stands a hookah with a long stiff spout. There is more bare body than shop. He probably does not depend on his shop for a living. An inquisitive passer-by, who peered in to gaze at his stock, was not even hailed as a possible customer.

Idle barbers sit by their doors hailing passers-by. The patrons of the Chandni bazaar, scowling, busy; bargaining, wrangling; smiling, smirking.

Cycle shops, camera shops, pigeon stalls for cigarettes and sherbet. Pavement vendors with their wares in their baskets, pavement barbers assisting the needy with their toilet; street hawkers who pause on the roadway at the hailing of a customer; quarrelsome ghari men lashing their whips at one another.

Clang, clang! Clang, clang! The iron tongue of a church bell and a Sunday stillness. Maidens agog with powder; matrons perspiring that powder into lines upon neck and back. Old women, half-blind, assisted across the tram tracks. Schools in strings led by a teacher. All going to church.

Monday again and the street is alive with noise. The trams are full and dozens cling on to the side, ranged along the footboard. An ageing woman, Indian Christian, stands at the back of the car with nothing to hold on to, no straps overhead, no bars by her side. Every jolt rocks her unsteadily and puts the wrinkles of alarm into her expression. A bullock cart turns in the path of the tram, for bullock carts are ever turning, and the tram car is brought to a sudden halt that almost takes those in their seats out of them. The Indian Christian woman clutches the shoulder of a neighbour, gives a little scream, and saves herself. The neighbour is a lean Anglo-Indian. He seems hungry and shabby. His shoulder where the woman clutched him is frayed and were not the other too frayed, one might have thought that the clutching grip of the woman’s nails was responsible. She smiles at him and thanks him. He looks at her sideway and touches his hat.

Thus introduced the woman thinks the acquaintance might be developed. She smiles and remarks that the car is “wary full, eh?”

“Y-yes,” agrees the man shyly.

“Got anything in the Derby?” she asks, becoming familiar.

Contempt follows. “Would I be here,” replies the man calmly, “if I had?”

Inside the car and much more secure is another woman. She has a seat, and her face is absorbed in the contents of her bag amongst which she fumbles. A ten rupee note is at length produced.

“Here you,” she says to the waiting conductor beside her, “bring the change in rupee notes.”

Everybody stares at her. The interest aroused produces much whispering in various directions.

Some moments later the conductor returns with the money. The change is in silver.

“Chutt,” says the woman, rejecting it. “I don’t want this. Ham rupee note bola, rupee note. Are you deaf, or what?”

She is informed that rupee notes are not easily available.

“Young man,” she says, stooping towards a neighbour; “young man,” she strikes his knee with her finger, “have you got a pencil?”

The implement is handed her.

“You,” she turns to the driver. “What’s your number?”

The figures are taken down, repeated loudly, compared—those on the paper with those on the man’s breast. Then the pencil is returned to the neighbour.

“I have been done before,” she observes “the other day I got fou’ bad rupees for a ten-rupee note. And it wasn’t the fust time. Before that I got . . . . . .”

The trouble was that she always had only a bunch of ten-rupee notes in her possession. The Derby query asked by the ageing woman further down the car might have been more pertinently asked here.

This was in the west end of Dhurrumtollah. Further down, eastwards, beyond the Square, there is modest respectability and quiet.

Chapter Nine

The River

The Hughli always puts me in mind of a self conscious, guilty dog, resting with its tongue out after a particular feat of mischief—dancing eyes and a naughty wink: expectant of a scolding, but resolved nonetheless that it will do the same thing again, if for nothing else than merely to tease you. You can see from its expression that the scolding is having not the slightest effect whatsoever. The worst of it is that it knows you have not the least power to compel it to heed your wishes. Were it a pet dog you might punish it: but you cannot punish a river. A dog might even be sent away or given away for obstinate disobedience beyond correction; but the Hughli will be here so long as Calcutta is; if not longer—though pessimists there always are to tell us that the river is drying up.

Ask the pilots if you wish to know what mischief the river can work. There are records in the Port Office to show what the stream has done in a fury. The biggest ships have been raised from their moorings and cast out upon the Eden Gardens, by the Lake and by the Band Stand; there are photographs at the Port Office to prove this. Tomorrow again it might be up to something. Its warders will put up a signal—“Cave canem”; and the shipping will tie up.

Man, knowing his powerlessness, recognises in the river a superior force, a power above that of man, the power of a god. And he falls on his knees and clasps his hands together and worships it. Thus has the Hughli been raised to a deity. The river god is breathing gently now, you can see his breast heave, up and down. Tomorrow he will take life to appease his hunger, snatch a bather from the water or wrest a child from the shore. Later, perhaps in the Monsoon, he will have a banquet, taking many lives and some river craft. So too has the cow become a deity, a god who gives us this day our daily bread by befouling the fields and providing the manure for the cultivation of wheat and paddy, and gives us moreover butter with the bread, so that he is more beneficent seemingly than the God of the Scriptures.

How calm the river lies this afternoon, as if brooding upon its memories, recalling the ships of yesterday that went out laden with spice for the western market; others coming in with useful western merchandise to be bartered with the oriental. Tidy budgerows with their freight of pretty girls, a shade the paler for having spent a hill-less summer, but shyer and coyer than pretty girls are today; elegant men with side whiskers and trousers that buttoned under their boots. Today the populace does not venture on the river, it goes by in cars and carriages on the bankside, a sedate procession, as to a funeral. But they drive by along the same track, where the river ran once, but has now shrunk away from the city, as if drawing in its shoulders. As you drive by you can hardly see the river; but you know it is there, for the hulls and sides of the bulky passenger-ships and trading vessels are inseparably associated in your mind with water.

The sun has set, giving the Howrah sky its renowned glory, and the massive ships are fading into mere pin-holes of light. The little boats and the buoys are patches of black upon the water’s twinkle. There is a mysterious splash and a creak as of rope and wood; another splash and a prolonged creaking—a boat is making for the coast where it is about to tie up for slumber. A launch hurries by with its deep guttural groan, and flaming smoke like the hair of Absalom in the wind.

In the boats by the jetties figures are busy, their coat collars turned up; and they peer at objects with little lamps. They are spying for opium thieves. The police patrol boat shoots by: in quest of the river dacoit; giving a sense of security to the families that have settled for slumber, clutching at the coast for safety.

Chapter Ten

Clive Street

Clive Street is the City of Calcutta—in the sense that London understands the word City. It is the centre of commercial activity, and each high, broad-shouldered building is honeycombed with cubicles in which young blood of England, Scotland and Ireland learns the effortless art of making money, a thing that is wholly outside normal school instruction.

It is a street of rivalry and struggle. Even the brick walls of the buildings attempt to get the better of one another: one stands out a little way more forward than another, and a third has settled in the middle of the road, indifferent of the consequence to the traffic as the very holy bulls. The consequences are real, of course. The traffic goes on to the left and to the right, and where there was only a Clive Street a Clive Row has also come into being.

Along by the edge of the walls upon the pavements, there grows up a bazaar each morning. It is dead by evening, but while it lives Indian buyers gather around to buy pan or cigarettes, and they linger to talk to one another. All the holy bulls that roam the city in their sanctity, drawn by the scent of the edibles, lounge about here like stout men at the seaside in shirts and flannels, edging the public off the pavements when they want to, and leaving their mark everywhere; and the exchange and other brokers as they go by may be seen to bow their heads in a salaam to the deity as an act of piety inspired by superstition—propitiating the god prior to a deal that they hope may turn out fortunate.

The street is choked with cars and carriages. Every minute or two there is a jam, as the vehicles pause and their occupants step out to confer with one another. But sometimes they are too busy to stop and talk and the deal is done while the carriages fly by, a figure standing out of this one waving his fingers, another standing there making facial gestures or nodding in acquiescence. These are the transactions of the Share Market.

“What is the bhow?” asks the sahib of the Marwari.

“Sem’n,” comes the answer, the halo-hatted Indian holding up seven fingers in the wind.

The sahib shakes his head negatively and says, “Don’t sell yet.” He draws in his head and up go his feet upon the top of the arm straps on the opposite side, after the manner of the sahibs of Clive Street.

The Marwari has stuck his head out of the opposite side of his ghari and with a further show of fingers is quoting another figure on some other stock, held by another passer-by for whom also is he a broker. Other Marwaris and sahibs are doing the same thing out of other cars and carriages. There is a veritable din of voices, added to by the pavement vendors, who cry their wares—“Gundari” and “Cha gurram.”

Amid all this activity and din a coolie has settled across the pavement to slumber, occupying a space of five feet and two inches with his knees tucked in. His head is upon his arm, and the snore is there, though it is audible only to those who heed it.

The people step by him or across him; they hardly notice him, so accustomed has everybody become to the sudden conversion of a public thoroughfare into a dormitory.

At five in the afternoon Clive Street takes on an entirely new aspect. The scene has changed completely. All the silks and satins of Bond Street drive in in cars from Regent Street and Kensington—or it may be Detroit and Phoenix—with the scents of Paris. There is a sudden invasion of colour. It is as if a new and gaudy hued stream had come to join the waters of a sombre river. The wives of the workers have come to take back their husbands from a day’s, dedication to toil and industry. Notice the contrast as they drive home—the women so fresh and smiling; the sahibs careworn and jaded.

Working girls, jaded too, are gathered in knots at the corners of Dalhousie Square, peering at the tramway signs as the chocolate and yellow tramcars clang by.

Babu clerks are walking homeward with shouldered umbrellas and, with bigger pans than their mouths can hold, they are telling each other their domestic secrets and vices in as loud a voice, as the cry of the muezzin from the mosque top.

All are going home now. Clive Street is left to a bullock cart, and perhaps a couple of dogs.

Chapter Eleven

The Street of Many Faces

It runs from Clubland into the smuts thrown up by the railway engines. It is the longest street in Calcutta, and it has many faces. Near the musical blasts of the Saturday Club it wears a lordly air and is known to the world as Wood Street. But when it moves, like the pastor, among the poor and the lowly, like the chameleon it takes on the aspect of its surroundings, shabby gentility in Wellesley Street, then poverty, vice, industry and charity.

Here is John Bazaar. It must have been the bazaar of the John Company, this double line of buff to which amongst Indians the name of John still lingers, though the Municipality have deigned to dignify it with its own high sounding appellation—Corporation Street. The very building of the Corporation is placed as a sort of watch and ward at one end of it, insisting that the street should no longer be “John” Bazaar, now that the Company is dead and the British Raj has itself taken possession of India. But like a truant child the street will only be corrected while the eyes of correction are still upon it. Where the Corporation building beholds it, have sprouted a store, a picture house, a police stat on which lurks coyly behind an abundance of greenery, a modern theatre, the stately headquarters of the Y.W.C.A. and a monster mansion—Samavaya.

But screened by this mansion the truant child goes its own wilful way —it is again the old John Bazaar of yesteryear, and so we find it when it gaily runs to frolic with the Street of Many Faces, at a corner that is far from the gaze of correction: low huts, dirty shops—a John Bazaar no longer frequented by John sahib, but by his servant, who purchases the requirements of the sahib’s horse, its bed and its breakfast.

John Bazaar is a portion of Indian Town come adrift from its moorings, and carried away by the surging tide of population beyond Dhurrumtollah There are other such sections that have drifted beyond this—Taltollah, and Bhowanipur, beyond the south end of Chowringhee.

But John Bazaar is of yesterday; no trams, no motors, for the bullock carts are beyond the power of the hooter to order. The street seems torn out of a village, and it is surprisingly out of place in Calcutta.

To return to the corner and continue down the Street of Many Faces. Northward the street is in the grip of antiquity. The little sweet shops and book stores of Wellington Street must have been there a hundred years ago; so too must have been the buildings that sulk behind them. The street never shows a change, but wears the same mood always, the same expression, going its old way, while the rest of the road submits to advance and improvement.

Here now is the crossing of Bow Bazaar—the homeland of Anglo-India. Poor schools, free schools, charity institutions, where the smock of the padre and the benignant smile of his wife bring happiness to many a sad young life. Dilapidated buildings, for the funds of charity are low and the roof has all but tumbled—yet here are housed what the gutter has surrendered, and tear-eyed mammas come each evening to peer through barred gates—where they are only allowed in once weekly—at the little ones toddling in laughter in their simple pleasures.

Side streets crouch beneath every window. In hovels, under staircases dwell entire families, the blood of England coursing in their veins—together with the blood of India. Are they happy? Are they contented? A growing city, cramped by a swamp, has compelled them to take refuge here; and the pace of improvement is a trifle slow for their sad lot.

But there is a text upon the street for all to see. It gives hope and a promise. A thoroughfare is being driven through the quarter, and part of it stands already complete—broad, airy, cheerful. It holds the promise of better days when the Slum might be vanquished.

Here is a mud floor full of dents and hollows. Tables and chairs stand by the mud walls, their feet in the dents or upon humps—they are all askew. Dust is thick everywhere and the cockroaches are nosing their way around, pausing only to gaze at the blinking lizards. The only thing of beauty is the shimmering web of a spider—so frail, so perfect; but the ugly fat beast in its midst, all wrinkled and pimpled, all stomach and legs, mars the picture.

There’s a narrow bench by the entrance. The owner has turned it into a bed. It is but ten inches wide, yet he sleeps upon it with his knees huddled, as if it were the most luxurious perquisite of paradise. Under the askew furniture sleep more people. The workmen, of whom there are four, toil, one beneath a table, another upon a table, a third in a dark corner, a fourth out on the pavement. The room is smaller than the Black Hole of Calcutta, but there is furniture within to fill a mansion, and there are people within engaged in the work of producing still more furniture. How work and efficiency, for they do display efficiency, can be achieved in such conditions makes the Westerner pause and wonder.

But the Street of Many Faces speeds on, through Indiana on to Dum Dum. It merges here into College Street, the precincts of education, where students lurk with books under their arms and chatter about the higher branches of philosophy and local politics. Hosts of one-roomed book stores have come into being, books are even sold on the pavements, lined up against the wall, or set in rows against the railings of the Squares in which the students promenade. Within the Squares youth seeks the diversion of manly exercise, leaping over-each other’s back, or, unclad, within the tanks, indulging in swimming and water polo.

Yet another mile further is a colony of Christian missions, all dotted around Cornwallis Square to work for the good of the people, giving education, and struggling with the arduous task of uplifting those whom caste prejudice has thrown into lowly surroundings and mental gloom.

The street signs invite the passers with a humour that was not intended. “Friends, Brothers and Company,” says one when you would look for the word “Countrymen,” instead of the last in the trinity. “Homeopathic Box Maker” screams another sign one is almost tempted to go in and inspect the curiosity. There are “Uncles” who have formed companies, and they are not the “Uncles” of western lands, adorning the frontage of their place of business with three gilt balls. No, they handle such commonplace things as steel trunks, or gramophones. Other signs flash equally unintended humour, and bring smiles into a section of the city where life is taken very, very seriously.

Chapter Twelve

The Bazaar

Here Memsahib; I got it!

It is the cry of the Market; morning, evening, noon, at all times—surging through the corridors of the bazaar without varying, like the tick of a clock.

A mass of moving humanity, and most of it memsahibs. Memsahibs in the shops, memsahibs outside the shops; and a few youths who are there only as escorts. And of course, the coolie with his basket, pursuing you everywhere.

It is a Congress of Smells: animal, vegetable and the fresh smell of newly opened packing cases.

Come to the flower stalls, where the joy of the betrothed and the ecstasy of the chorus girl stand beside the downcast black of the bereaved. Here some white flowers, wreaths and crosses. There some roses, beautifully scented roses, in baskets as high as the car of Juggernaut.

By the cake and sweet stalls wide-eyed children stand and stare and are dragged unwillingly away by father, who can afford to buy but a few of the things so eagerly asked for by the little ones; and the children stare back at the stalls as they are led away.

Among the silks and laces are the flappers, swinging their ribboned pigtails as they pass, sniggering as they nudge each other; for youth stands about in admiring knots, twirling the scarce visible down upon the upper lip and flashing their canes as though to say, “We’re reg’lar devils.”

Hold your eau-de-cologne steeped strips of lace and linen to your noses, for we have come now to the open stalls, red and white with dangling muttons. Near here the Indians sit and have their tea and spit and gargle; and talk in a high pitched howl.

Come along, though, to the fruit stand, where the air glows with luscious flavour; where the men from Kabul sit among their wares and smile through their beard, beguiling passers to purchase. Here you see the politeness of Persia. Each basket holds a pyramid of dried fruit, surmounted by a wooden ball of colours. A man will hail you in a voice as guttural as a sink pipe; and swing out with the aid of a rope that hangs above his high stall from the lofty roof; and so swing himself back again when you have passed on unheeding.

Here are lines and lines of old books. The keeper, ignorant of English, can utter few of the names of what he possesses.

A beautiful gloved hand rested on my arm an instant and the eyes of a middle aged woman of undoubted refinement met mine.

“Will you give me your card?” she said, “I want to borrow two annas. I have just run short.”

Why she did not ask the stall keeper to trust her, I know not. He had no doubt made much more than a two-anna profit. The money came back in stamps that evening by the last post. Just the stamps and a large sheet of paper bearing the one word “Thanks.”

Chapter Thirteen


The world is upon the pavement. There are unseen faces behind the lattice above, that peer at the passing panorama. And what a panorama!

The whole of the East is here—from Khorasan to Tokio; from Pekin and Canton to Colombo; the Ysufzais, the Waziris and the Zakka khels, men who warred against us a month ago and will war again against us a month later—they are here: hawking animal skins and rugs like peaceful traders, two thousand and more miles from the border across which they battle. Men from Morocco and Asia Minor—the fez and the Astrakhan; men from Tibet and Sikkim with felt hats and dirty knotted plaits, long untidy dressing gowns trailing in the dust; Chinamen, high-cheeked and fish-mouthed; traders from Central Asia; beggars with freak cows and goats; men with dancing dolls and shaggy bears and monkeys. Colour, colour, colour; colour and filth all around you.

There are streets in Native Calcutta that you would swear had been whisked there from a port on the Red Sea or the Eastern Mediterranean. The few white men one passes are Greek and Semitic in feature. The shops are one roomed. There is no wall where they front the street and the entire interior is exposed to the view of everybody. There are wares on the street too, piled high on the pavement.

The shop is laid with a bed across the entire floor space; and though work was not begun till midday, the owner and those around him will take it in turns to slumber, or rather they will take it in turns to keep watch for customers while all the rest slumber.

Behind the door is a jar of water. Presently each man will step out and have a bath on the pavement, while the world passes on around them. They will take off their clothes and dry them in the sun, dry themselves in the sun, then go in again, to sleep in turns upon the bed that is spread upon the shop floor.

There is a row a few hundred yards away. A scream is heard and a crowd has gathered. In a twinkling almost every shop is deserted. In every fifth shop one man stays to keep the thieves away.

And what is all the trouble about? If crowds knew they would never gather. It is curiosity more than the incident that has assembled them. Men take each other’s arms and pat their backs as they gather round and ask the self-same question. But nobody knows what has happened. Those forming the centre of the group move outward and walk away; they are pursued and questioned. A small object is pointed to on the roadside. It is a dead dog, a miserable pariah that has been run over by a taxicab.

The crowd begins to melt away. They have formed fours and fives and sevens and talk within the groups and across the groups; the miserable dead pariah is the theme of their conversation. This man saw the pariah only a minute before nosing some rubbish outside his shop, or lapping the water that fell from his limbs while he bathed.

Everybody is intrigued by the information.

Another tells of a pariah that was run over ten days ago—by a traincar. Death, at least, is varied for the pariah.

A stern finger is shaken at a two year old infant sitting in a shop, bewildered—with large, black round eyes.

“Mind,” admonishes the parent, still shaking his finger, “mind you do not get run over by these infernal things that move so quickly.”

A bullock cart wobbles by noisily. The carter is asleep and the bullocks are jogging leisurely onward. This, one reflects, is the real India. Why did the West ever try to arouse it into a speedier civilisation?

Chapter Fourteen


Tanks and trees, patches of untidy green, mosque, temple, huts and houses—such is a suburb of Calcutta. Where the houses are red and new, with lawns well laid, from which issues in season the laughter of white-clad tennis players, or the bark of a playful romping dog, there the huts are fewer and the suburb is largely European. The silence is like the silence of an English suburb pierced not unpleasantly by the screech of the creatures of the air, and heightened by the noiseless and jerky zig-zag flit of picturesque butterflies. Large cars roll gently by as if gliding upon cotton wool, along the red-surfaced roads that doze and stretch themselves in the fatigue of leisure beneath the heavy shade of thick mopped trees. The side walls of the houses are spotless, the edge of the streets neat and drainless—the whole suburb seems as if it was unpacked out of a box from Bond Street only that morning. Such is western Alipore—but let us now go eastward.

Suburbia is a semicircular tract between the Ditch that was and the Swamp that is. What was the ditch is now Circular Road which embraces almost the whole of Calcutta, and suburbia skirts it all the way with a flicker of varying appellations from Alipore to Belgachia. It fades in glamour, tidiness and respectability as it curves eastward and northward. Eastern Alipore is dull, Bhowanipore shabby, scarcely genteel. There is a brief shine at Ballygunge—Ballygunge where men still own residences and maintain numerous retainers as in the days of the nabobs. Entally is ragged. Tangara has an air of dead flesh and leather. Belgachia. . . .

In Alipore East the trams clang and the clerks hurry along over the bridge beneath which Tolly’s Nullah drowses, dreamy, unstirring; a country boat or two moored perhaps, or as dreamily gliding by.

Bhowanipore with its small huddled homes housing barristers of note, pleaders and judges, their garments all a flutter into the streets as they dry on a line in the narrow verandahs; the two Ballygunges divided by Scott Thompson’s pharmacy, which has reared a social bar between the dwellers of two sections of the same suburb. Beniapukur, a medley of Anglo-Indian, Native Christian and pure Indian; Entally, quiet, sleepy, other world, where men stand at their gates in their pyjamas and women do their marketing in curl papers and slippers; Tangra, a paradise of quiet, a health resort almost—until you smell the smells.

Chapter Fifteen

The Victoria Memorial

Time was when the Victoria Memorial was the biggest joke in Calcutta. Correspondents scribbled to the newspapers, daily inventing a new jibe. Wits thrived. Even Governors joked about it. In a dozen years, we were told, not a dozen stones had been put together.

Then it grew. A magnificent pile of white marble came into being, crowned with a dome that can hold its head up with the best domes of the world. It is a place that will make you hold your breath in admiration. Man has achieved here that which is infinitely greater than man. It will endure beyond generations of individual men. It will enhance the glory of Calcutta and be added to the list of the finest sights in India—the Taj, the Himalayas, and the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

A splendour from a distance with a livid dome just distinguishable from a white sky and emergent out of a sea of greenery, the Memorial, when you approach it, betrays a fineness of filigree that was not even suspected. Floral carving, embossed sculpture, the colour of ornamental casements, the twin-hued marble, impart a beauty that is scarce rivalled. Here Sir William Emerson has executed a dream that has admirably blended the style of the English Renaissance with features that are Indian and Saracenic. All around is a wealth of allegory, symbol, and history. The waters from two sources (Britain and India, presumably) mingling and flowing on to one goal. Then we see Motherhood and Education. Again there are panels of all the incidents enacted in India during the lifetime of Queen Victoria.

Inside are scenes from the Queen’s life in colour— beautiful frescoes from the brush of Mr. Frank Salisbury, which I had the good fortune to see him at work on in his studio in St. John’s Wood. And well below these frescoes, beneath even the gallery which they adorn are tablets let into the walls, bearing the words of the Queen’s proclamations to the peoples of this country, so that the stones of this structure might speak for all time to the multitude.

Five other halls run off the centre hall—known as the Queen’s Hall. One to the left holds busts and pictures of famous names in India’s history; to the right are large canvasses depicting famous scenes enacted in this country. Beyond the Queen’s Hall there is a room containing ancient arms and trophies, a vestibule with a few busts, and a Durbar Hall for such functions in the future. In the entrance vestibule stand relief models of the battles of Seringapatam and Plassey; also a model of the first Fort William, showing the position of the Black Hole of Calcutta. One gets some queer effects of light in all rooms, and the whole atmosphere seems magical and wonderful.

But more wonderful than what has been intentionally made so are the things that have become so quite by accident—the whispering gallery and the space between the two domes. The whispering gallery is like any other whispering gallery, wonderful, but a sort of wonder that can be seen elsewhere. In the space between the domes you can play with sound as a child plays with a ball; no man has ever before played with sound so merrily; none but a god could have harnessed it so like a frolicking animal.

But climb higher. Tread warily up the narrow iron bars dug into the wall that offer scarce a foothold, and stand beneath the feet of the figure of Victory. All Calcutta is now before you in a gorgeous panorama. Screened shyly behind the greenery, as if holding it all to the eyes because of the glare, are the houses of Calcutta, almost all white houses catching the light and reflecting it back to Heaven. The river sneaks away behind the buildings, while by its edge puff the mills like squatting Indians smoking the hookah—the tall chimneys emphasising the semblance.

And you realise as you see it all that the Memorial is finer than everything else around you. From twenty two miles down the river incoming steamers see it and they know that that white glory is Calcutta.

Chapter Sixteen


To all appearances it was the dead of night.

Clive Street lay still and silent. A dog breathed heavily in the middle of the road, where the darting traffic in the day time would not permit even a fly to settle; and with its back to the wall of one of the proudest of Calcutta’s commercial houses a cow had squatted like an expansive dowager, wearing, at last, the look of rest and contentment.

A jackal had strayed inquisitively past Government House into Council House Street, to admire the sleeping thousands upon the pavements. At the Great Eastern Hotel a taxi pulled up with a grating smash of brakes. Drowsy evening-dressed men inside attempted to get out. Across a maidan track a nimble two-seater sped—the collar of the lady’s cloak fluttering in the wind.

It was but a few minutes to dawn. As I proceeded along the Esplanade and Chowringhee, one by one the lights went out; and the grey of morning advanced lazily, as if tired from sleep and loth to rub its eye. Darkness, with the sentinel gaze from the lamp standards turned cool, spread itself all along the earth, while morning crawled sleepily across the heaven. Goats, carts, bullocks, dogs—all seemed like darkness. I had to stop in order not to stumble. Far down the road a man sneezed like the loose strings of a violin, while an old consumptive coughed into the approaching morning.

Then two figures went by, with a snake fifty yards long upon their shoulders. It was the Snake of Dawn. When the Snake squealed, all knew it was morning; more certainly than by the crow of the cock, which is never heard in three-fourths of Calcutta.

The two figures stopped where a gas jet had just surrendered its flicker, and sank the tail of the serpent into the earth’s surface; and then came a hissing and cursing spit, and a tumble of froth and foam, and a rod of white water that shifted across the road like the needle of a compass, making the dogs stand up and trip away, and the cows rise and move slowly on, and the thousand sleepers of the night sit up to rub their knees and cough and tell each other of the dawn and the day that is to come.

From where the sleeping city had roused itself earlier came the first cry of morning—a rumbling refuse cart with its chanting attendant; for the dirtiest are ever the happiest. And the cart moved on, and many more like it, to tidy the city for an awaking population.

In the west the sky which had folded to itself six slender poles of black, released them upon seeing the eyelid of the inquisitive east a-lifting; and the slender poles returned to the Fort and began telling it once more of half the happenings of the world; for wireless poles are as gossipy as old women, overhearing everything, and telling everybody else all about it.

Night surrendered too the big bushy trees and the walks and drives of Calcutta. And above the big buildings of Chowringhee, peered the Dawn playfully, with half an eye; while horses tripped with men and girls across the maidan in the chill mist of morning.

This mist descends each night to sleep upon the green, a gentle mist, frail and insignificant; just as the crows do upon the trees. But it is a deep sleeper and only the persistent sun can rouse it, saying, “Arise. Away. ’Tis dawn. What do you here when all else is stirring?”

Horses and riders move into couples, or threes, or fours. One gallops on into the grey blue distance. Walkers stride on, their arms swinging. The people of Calcutta are taking their supply of fresh air to last them till the evening.

When the day has ended, and when the evening has ended, the people will retire beneath sheets—sheets that hush the manifold activities of the denizens of a great city.

The ritual of dawn will follow as before and when the Serpent of Morning hisses, the sheets will be cast aside and another day will have begun upon the unceasing busy round of Calcutta.

Chapter Seventeen


Where the red has vanished in the West a greyish blend of silver and gold holds sway, an irregular inflated O, like a god of spirit, blazing with a white heat as of a fire within. It fills the whole west sky from south to north, but is shrinking, shrinking—and collapsing. A collapsing O that will soon be all in pieces and vanish, for the twilight of the tropics is very short. It has gone. A dimmer night alone remains to tell us that but recently the sun reigned there.

Blackness and blackness—everywhere. Dots of light have pricked through in ordered patterns with others shifting around as if to find a place in the scheme of things with the patterned rest. The city is perforated with luminance. It makes one feel that darkness is indeed but a blotting paper, covering up the sunshine; with the brilliance peeping through the thin graining of the paper.

There is a spirit of freedom abroad. No more is the sun like a sentinel at the street corner waiting to beat you back homeward. You may walk on. There is relaxation. The tense frowns of daytime care have vanished. You need not think what must be done and what must not; there is only one thing that all are doing—taking life’s relaxation.

Look at Chowringhee from the Maidan. You can see it in the sky—a line of pale pink cotton wool. On earth, each lamp has assumed the features of a whiskered cat—all of light. And as you drive on the whiskers fade into a woolly mass of paler night. It is the kiss of night upon a blob of blackness. You drive on. All the lights perform a torchlight tattoo as if solely for your entertainment. They march sternly forward, step backward or trip lightly to the side, circling now merrily around each other or in their own little circles—where could such a sight be seen without the Maidan?

The cow has settled down to slumber, and the jackal has put its nose out of the bowels of the earth to see the soldiers beneath a clump of trees wave their canes and sing in a concerted melody.

Chowringhee growls in a torment of discordant sounds, just below the jewelled breast of the Picture House and the tiara blaze of the Empire’s dome.

The soothing air of advancing night beckons and points a hand at the city’s many drives—by the riverside, around the Maidan, across the Maidan; or better still along the Gharia Hat Road, narrow, seemingly deserted and romantic, which has been responsible for more honeymoons being made or cancelled than may be told here.

When you turn again homeward, Chowringhee has been hushed into silence by the dinner bell and the voice of a coolie singing his paean of joy after a weary day’s labour may be heard in the still air.

Chapter Eighteen

The City of the Half Dead

Summer time in Calcutta. It is the City of the Half Dead. People crawl along the streets with long slow strides. Dozens doze in the shadow of the trees of the maidan, and even the squirrels look about and blink, forgetful of a departed activity. The ghari horse has his mouth on his toes and nods sleepily as he slowly labours through the long day. The peon brings you a letter in a book and falls asleep before you can sign for it.

Burning, ever burning and yet not consumed, the Sun endures its daily torture of boiling to a white heat at noon day—from the rosy smiling orb of dawn to the flushed and weary disc of evening.

White and ungazeable it is poised high above the crown of the Monument. And the city below with its parching plain of green, its irregular streets and its crawling traffic, suffers this gaze of the scorching eye of Heaven that burns out of the sky at noontide to gaze upon the city and discover its iniquity.

But the city is too sleepy for iniquity.

On the pavements coolies have fallen asleep, squatting by the street dogs. Durwans and other servants are stretched at length in their dwellings. Sahibs endeavour to keep awake over iced sodas or water. Memsahibs, home from their matutinal round of shopping, after a brief lunch will retire for an afternoon siesta.

The very streets lie in a trance, white with dust and glare. The heat of May has made the trees dizzy and there is a drowsy spell upon the city. The air is oppressively still; one can hardly breathe in it.

The brilliant brightness, the hot dazzling white streets, the jaded figures pouring perspiration upon the pavements, the rush of the dust from beneath the wheels of taxis, the droning buzz of the traffic . . . .

But come with me and sit behind a khus khus tattie in a pale light, as sallow as it is in a cinema, and let us listen to the squeal of the syringe squirting water upon the tattie. The air will come in, moist and cooled; and the electric fan above will swing its hazy halo at its base, but you can hardly see it. The bearer will enter with a tray and stand all white in that gloom and the tinkle of ice in the glasses will refresh you beyond the power of words to utter.

Come drink this glassful and let every nerve thrill with the coolness of the liquid. Don’t fall asleep. When you awake your head will be appallingly muddled, and—but let the bearer bring you another drink, and let us talk of the monsoon that is not yet coming. We will talk of the rain coming down outside, and imagine we hear the wind tearing at the shutters, desirous to enter. Hear the skies thunder presently, and think we see the lightning flash through the cracks in the shutters. There is an enormous drama being played by the elements with the whole universe for their setting. The winds will howl en—n—n—n—core, and the window shutters clap their applause as the rain comes down, swooshing, and everything is pleasantly cool around you.

But it is only the coolness of a gust of breeze through the tatties and the water syringe still squeals outside to say so.

And the ice will melt and the tatties dry, for the drowsy mali is bound to succumb to slumber. The syringe will lie impotent by his side and the sun-steeped wind will tip-toe in through the cracks in the shutters, and sting your face and your forehead. Your lips will swell with parchedness and you will gaze with longing into the glass you have emptied.

The heat has numbed you—and me. We cannot stir. We cannot even call for assistance.

If the night is cool we shall fall asleep only to wake up because there is no air for respiration and we shall want to stand by windows, to move about, to strip, to play with water, to do anything that will give relief for a moment.

Chapter Nineteen

Is It the Monsoon

As I stood by my window and looked into Chowringhee a wind laden with the moisture of the sea swept through the streets in a tearing, noisy fury. The curtains by my side bulged, flapped and fluttered, and the sky was as black as the darkness of Doom.

Leaves fell to the ground, others rose from the ground, birds flew out of trees in heaps like a windstorm in a waste paper basket.

There was a sudden speeding in every movement. Indians who had dawdled on pavements all their lives walked briskly. The dogs woke up and looked about now to this side, now to that, confused. Windows were shut everywhere with a clatter. The trees swayed like fairy mammoths in a weird forgotten dance that one felt would only be danced again at the end of time.

Coolness came in gusts through the window, sweeping down vases in the sitting room, papers from tables, fluttering curtains to the ceilings, shaking pictures, setting all the lights and fans a-swaying and casting weird moving shadows.

The wind smote the face, whistled in the ears and sent the hair a-ruffle. Congestions occurred behind every policeman’s hand at the crossings and people hurrying home swore terrible oaths—as fierce as the coming storm—over the smoking bonnets of their motors.

There were queer noises in the air as if the joints of the universe were loose and rattling. Chokra boys, secure in shelter, shouted “Hooray” to their less fortunate fellows.

And then the rain came down. You couldn’t see it. You couldn’t hear it. But on the surface of the earth was a sudden moisture, that glistened and deepened, and, as the municipal lights came on, caught their rays of gold in stars and bars until whole streets were alight, aglow, a livid gold, like the golden-paved streets of London in the dream of Dick Whittington.

Then the rain spoke, prattled like a growing infant, then grew noisy and muttered, played with the wind that beat it against the window panes in a frolic, or sent it leaping across the pavements.

The rain grew, its voice deepened, until it was as full grown as the monsoon, and life was once more worth living in Calcutta.

The air was filled with an unceasing cry for taxis, which with the mystery attached to flies that go away in winter, vanish when the rain comes down and they are most wanted.

In the streets Indians crawled crouching under moist umbrellas. Motor cars broke down, ghari horses proved obdurate and inclined to practise circus turns—so frivolous had the rain made them!

Lighted trams went through the rain, their worried freights wondering how on earth they were going to get out at their destinations.

The crows tired of trying to sleep in their damp nests; and mother crow took the baby ones under her wing to keep them warm, while father crow muttered in a deep voice that he didn’t see whatever it wanted to rain for, as they had been quite happy without it.

Chapter Twenty

The Monsoon

There was no dawn. After the darkness came greyness and it lingered through as daylight. There was a stillness outside save for the rain; leaden outside and a sound of frying.

Frying, frying. There is ever so much oil in the pan of Heaven and it is all fizzling, sizzling. It has been poured all over the maidan and the entire city of Calcutta is being fried as a sacrifice.

But where are the flames, where the ruby glows from earth upon the low clouds? It is all leaden, a bluey, greyish leaden: and the frying is but the rain that is descending in a striped mist between me and everything. Every grain of air glistens with the falling raindrops.

The traffic scrunches through the streets and splashes puddles into dirty sprays. There is a beautiful glaze on the surface of the roads, on the roofs of taxis, on umbrellas; a glaze as fine as on a silk hat newly ironed in Piccadilly.

All hurry. Only the cows stand and stare, wondering what it all means. And their backs are moist and shining. A wind blows the raindrops into Catherine-wheels of spray all along the maidan.

The clouds growl overhead angrily and flash the lightning sword as if for battle. A sword flash, another growl, and the colourless blood of clouds in quarrel: drip, drip, drip; sizzle, sizzle—transforming an Empire’s Second City into a wilderness.

Every window is shut, wet and glistening. Whatever is is wet and dripping. Pools have formed in earth depressions, puddles are lodged in cart ruts, and the drains whirl like rushing torrents. Back streets are a-wash up to the ankle.

This is the Monsoon.

The Monsoon bolts and bars the doors of inclination. No one has ever felt like doing more in a monsoon than what the dog does, turn round and go to sleep again. Go out? With pavements sopping, shoes dripping, socks and stockings wet, seats of taxis damp, the whole world gloomy and depressing. Read? When the moisture presses down the eyelids and strokes the temples saying “Stretch and sleep: for this alone has the Monsoon been given.”

There is a letter at the door. It is limp and the ink has run the address off its edges. There is a trickle coming into the room from the foot of the glass window. There is a patch of discoloured floor by another window which had been left open but is now shut; and the mehter is doing his best with a jharan. Such is monsoon weather!

We had wished for it. We had prayed for it. It came and stayed with us ten days. Ten days of dripping, pouring, raining noisily, raining quietly; but ever raining. It was depressing; forced us to stay in; but the heat had vanished and that at least was a blessing.

But soon the heat returned and the monsoon vanished. The petulant, truant thing went capering away inland. Returns the Sun in heat and majesty. Return brightness and glare and dry blown dust. Return high temperatures and perspiration and itching bodies. Returns the magnificence of Calcutta’s hot weather.

Yet thank the sunshine, the glare and the brilliance that you may go out now of an evening. Pent up for days the emotions can now run riot. Fill your evenings and days for a month to come. There is never too much you can do to make up for those depressing days spent behind the drizzle that ran around you like a high wall, transparent yet impenetrable.

On the sixth day you curse the rain for staying away so long. Again the glare is trying. Once more the body itches. Then down it comes. Another monsoonic spell for six or eight days. It may be more, it may be less. It certainly means staying indoors in the evenings.

The monsoon played a prank the other evening. It put out the lights of the city with the ease of a stage manager. Traffic was still, the song died on the lips of a neighbour in the middle of a phrase. The tune was still on the finger-tips of the beauteous maiden whose light had glowed a pretty pink under hanging lamp shades of rose with broad black borders. The clatter of plates in the kitchen ceased. Tongues grew silent, as if in the dark there were nothing at all to utter. Sudden darkness, without correction by kerosine or candle, is like laying a hand upon the heel of Time and staying him. It is the gap between the normality of life that has ended and the normality of life that will begin again when the pulse of life beats once more along the wood-cased wires. Till then Time is idle, asleep on the sofa in the next room.

Outside the monsoon is raging, screaming, whistling. Catherine-wheels of spray are coursing along the maidan, though it is too dark now to see them. Each tree must be swaying through many angles.

The monsoon is very noisy. I was asleep and it woke me up with its whistling and screaming and the sound of frying.

Chapter Twenty-One


The traffic in the streets has doubled. There is ceaseless congestion. The pace has slackened and the voice of the cars is louder, shriller, yelling all around in a weird fashion. It is the busy season and the gay, when the sun lies late abed like the human beings, and there is a greyness of morning that reminds one of the more Western of the earth’s regions.

Pleasure is in the air. All is fun and frivolity—as if Calcutta never did anything but frivol; as if it had not been through the agony of hell while its merrymaking visitors, here now, were laughing as merrily in a hill station or at Home in England. Work seems suspended. Hotel lounges are full all day. All day the streets are thronged with idlers, visitors, sightseers. Any day and every day the offices seem ready to close to let all go to the races or a festival.

A pretty girl. Another. Still another. And more of them. Pretty girls—pink cheeked and delicate hued; with a gentle laugh that rises like their tip-tilted noses; their ever-laughing mischief making eyes, and their toes that will be busy afternoon and evening, moving to the stringed orchestras that sway out swinging melodies in the lighted crowded restaurants. This is wintertime—the season of pleasure. The lights are lit early; for the Sun fearing the cold nip, retires betimes to its bed across the Hughli.

But while the traffic has slackened the pace of life is speedier. In summertime you came home leisurely to your slippers and pyjamas. You measured yourself a half peg and stretched for the “John Bull” that came in by the last mail. “John Bull” now lies upon a chair in a high pile of unopened copies; if you count them you will know how old is wintertime. But you haven’t even time to count them. From office to tennis; thé dansant, theatre; late abed and late at rising; and a hurry again to office.

Every house is a mass of light, flinging its glow out of its windows upon the street; and there issues, mingling with the light, the tinkle of a piano, songs, choruses and feminine laughter; games here, orchestral music there and a shuffle of feet. It is all black and shut up in summer, or perhaps papa is playing bridge or a game of patience; though the chances are that he is asleep with his face beneath a newspaper.

Calcutta’s biggest wintertime attraction is the Racing; except during a Royal visit—and then the Turf Club contrives to work the two things very much together. For months women have studied pictured lists from Piccadilly, searching for something to wear at the Races. New milliners’ signs adorn the city’s streets, as short lived as the flies, just for the Racing season. The Indian has unpacked his shawls of many colours only to sport it on the crowded course where the patterned shoulders work a mosaic that is hardly ever seen in a human picture.

Gay and busy, it is a season that attracts a multitude from the world’s four corners. They come for the racing, they come for frivolity, but they come primarily for the climate. Could the weather only be induced to continue its particular wintertime spell throughout the course of the year’s varying seasons, Calcutta would become the most coveted place in this sad globe, more cursed than blessed with climate.

Chapter Twenty-Two

The Hand of Change

The Hand of Change waves a wand above Calcutta almost each night; the next morning finds the city a trifle different. But two centuries ago, when New York was New York, Calcutta was only a jungle; with no wheeled vehicle, and an abundance of creeks and tanks and luxuriant vegetation. It is lighted today with electricity; and its people may fly in an aeroplane from an adjacent aerodrome. There are motors and ’buses and palatial dwelling houses, and the city is still undergoing change. In a dozen years it will be even more western than it is today.

Time was when one went to work by dinghi, down the river for lack of necessary road traffic, or rode on the backs of elephants and camels; then came the palanquin and the bearers from Orissa, who bore their freights singing upon their shoulders, swaying them as ever ship was swayed upon a billowy sea; but the bearers struck work, and an ingenious “Ditcher” placed the palanquin upon wheels, harnessing the horse to do the work of half a dozen coolies. The strike was broken, the bearers came back, but master set them to cleaning shoes and boots and to hold the coat while master tied his kerchief. Streets that were too narrow to admit the broader palanquins were widened to receive the ghari; and then the top of the conveyance was removed so that users could enjoy the air in the evening. Today we have ’buses, soon there will be still more ’buses of the newest London pattern, making the city gaudy with their bright colour. Tomorrow there will be tubes, for already a survey has been made and plans are being discussed for the purpose.

As the Swamp is repulsed the city will grow larger, expanding to a measure fitting its importance; as the Slum is vanquished neat, broad thoroughfares will replace the narrow, twisting streets. There will be more air for everybody; there will be more room in the dwellings, more space in the streets. More parks, more suburbs, and electric railways to transport one everywhere.

The houses of yesterday are fast disappearing. Where now are the old palaces of the Nabobs, chunam-faced buildings, with their Ionian pillars, balustraded roofs and spacious verandahs? There are scarce half a dozen in Chowringhee, and they are stared at as objects of curiosity. They had sought refuge once in Park Street, when the monster shops first ousted them from the city’s chief thoroughfare. Park Street became then a gallery of old houses—houses of the days of the Company. But they are gone now. Even Park Street is fast changing. It is assuming the character of Regent Street and dressing itself with new shops and big buildings.

Calcutta is losing its Oriental aspect. The old haunts of yesterday are vanishing. Already the eating houses which the sailormen of Kipling’s day frequented are no more. Many of the opium-dens and gambling hells he knew too have disappeared. The streets of the Ghoses and Boses, the dwelling places of the scented beauties of Night still stand: but they will be gone tomorrow. The Hand of Improvement is clearing away everything. A newer haunt of sailormen is going too: the Bristol Hotel which marked the Chorwinghee corner of Dhurrumtollah is now doomed. The corner is to be removed altogether; and the Bristol has already moved next door.

Where walls touched shoulders on each side, enormous ’buses will tremble through, and where the poor died in puddles of mud around which flies circled and crows cawed, there will be lakes and parks. Cinemas will multiply; there will be more theatres and with the advance of amenities for summer there might be perhaps a return of family life: wives no longer banished for three fourths of the year to the hills, or children torn away—to return in a season when city life is too distracting to permit us to think of one another.

The bullock cart will be no more: the lorry has vowed to kill it; but the crows will be always with us: they were here before the city was built, and they will be here after it has crumbled—if it ever does crumble. One is inclined to wonder at times if all these mighty edifices will be abandoned some day by those for whom they were built. Will the Britons say to the Indians, “We built all this for ourselves, and for you; but we can no longer live together”? Will the line of statues that now adorns the picturesque Red Road which runs between balustraded greenery into the southern horizon, be taken into the back gardens of some Babus’ country-houses, and bustis blossom upon what is now the Maidan?

One thinks not. The City of Charnock holds a more hopeful promise.

The End